Why I Will Never Sign Another Marriage License

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weddingAs a former pastor, I married many couples.  The majority of them were not a part of my small congregation.  They were often friends or extended family of parishioners.  In many cases, their relationship would raise eyebrows in a conservative church.  The majority were not Christians who lived together and were even previously divorced.

I justified marrying these couples using two lines of thinking. First, given the fact that they weren’t Christians, was I supposed to hold them to a Christian standard of living?  After all, Christianity is a commitment to Jesus, not just a commitment to behavior modification.  Secondly, being a part of their wedding meant that I had a chance to be a witness to this couple and their families. I’m sure there are plenty of pastors that think my involvement was ill-advised, but it is what I did… for better or worse.

Before I married a couple, I made them commit to meeting with me at least three times.  Upfront, I told them that my involvement in their wedding depended on two important factors.  First, I gave each of us an out.  “If I see red flags, I have the right not to perform your wedding and bless your marriage.  And likewise, if you’re uncomfortable with me for any reason, just be honest, and I won’t be involved.”  Secondly, I explained to them that because I was a Christian, this was going to be an overtly Christian wedding.  “I am a Christian, and I don’t know how to have a marriage without Jesus,” I explained.  “I believe that God created marriage, and so if you want me to be involved, you have to be okay with me bringing Christianity into our premarital discussions and into your wedding ceremony.”

I remember discussing one particular couple with a friend who happens to be a Dominican Monk.  I explained how the woman was raised Catholic, though neither her nor her fiance were practicing Christians.  She had been divorced, and the couple was currently living together.  “The Church would reject both her previous marriage and would not recognize their new marriage,” he explained.  Call me naive, but I was sort of blown away by how free he felt to define the terms of their marriage.

As I’ve chewed on his words over the years, his objection then seems even more relevant now.

Same-sex marriage may be a new challenge for the church, but if it’s anything like the issue of divorce, it’s about to get really complicated.  I don’t know about other churches, but when a married couple attended our church, they were treated as married.  Even when we knew of divorce, I don’t recall having conversations with them about the circumstances of the divorce and remarriage.  I’d venture to say most churches have swept the issue of divorce right under the rug in a “don’t ask; don’t tell” fashion.  For the most part, many congregations are happy to let the state dictate to us who is and who isn’t married.  I confess; I complacently operated that way.

As much as the Supreme Court dictated that marriage is about equal rights and is a secular institution, there’s funny business that goes on between the church and the state.  Most states, if not all, allow a minister to perform and sign the state’s marriage license.  Granted, states do a little background checking beforehand.  But when it comes down to pronouncing a couple married, the state is happy to adhere to the minister’s declaration.  I admit that I got a little power trip when I got to the end of the ceremony and said, “By the power vested in me as a minister of the Gospel of Jesus and by the State of Maryland…”  Now, looking back, I am only suspect of such authority.  The strings attached to that power are a bit uncomfortable for me.

In Chief Justice’s John Roberts’ descent to the Supreme Court ruling, he noted,

Hard questions arise when people of faith exercise religion in ways that may be seen to conflict with the new right to same-sex marriage — when, for example, a religious college provides married student housing only to opposite-sex married couples, or a religious adoption agency declines to place children with same-sex married couples…  Indeed, the Solicitor General candidly acknowledged that the tax exemptions of some religious institutions would be in question if they opposed same-sex marriage. See Tr. of Oral Arg. on Question 1, at 36–38. There is little doubt that these and similar questions will soon be before this Court. Unfortunately, people of faith can take no comfort in the treatment they receive from the majority today.

While there are many in the LGBT community and supporters of same-sex marriage who promise that pastors will still have religious freedom, we have seen some force participation in their wedding on those who dare oppose.  Even though those militant towards dissenters are most likely in the minority, their actions have caused a stir that should cause all of Christians and churches to heed caution.  Already Time Magazine has posted an article on its website calling for the end of tax exemption for churches who refuse to sign off on same-sex marriage licenses.

So today, I have decided that I will no longer sign a marriage license, nor will I accept payment to marry a couple.  And I must tell you, it is a very freeing decision.

The Supreme Court’s decision to allow same-sex marriage in all fifty states was a wake up call for me.  Clearer than ever, I realized that the state and the church may be using the same word, but there are clearly different meanings.  The Catholic Church has operated independently of the state when it comes to marriage.  Yes, they’ll sign marriage licenses, but the clergy, at least, have never been under pressure to be dictated by a state license.  And neither should any other church.

The idea not to sign marriage licenses is not original to me.  It came from a friend and fellow pastor.  He explained to me that it’s his church’s policy that they will not sign state-issued marriage licenses.  In his words, “I’ve poured too much love into this church to have someone take it all away.”  He explained that if they would like to be married in the eyes of the state, they must go to the Justice of the Peace or someone else who will sign off.  When I asked if they required the state license to be recognized as married, he said, “No.  We tell them it’s a good idea to get the state-issued marriage license, but it’s really up to them.”

For some who think that a state license is a necessary element for a marriage, this idea may make them blush.  I chuckle at the thought of my own wedding night.  Following the reception, my wife and I headed to the hotel to… well… do married people stuff.  However, our pastor had forgotten to get the best man and maid of honor to sign the license.  According to my friends, he came storming into their hotel where they were staying like a man on a mission, frantically yelling for them to quickly sign the paper.  In his eyes, we were not married until that paper was signed.

It used to be that a state-issued marriage license was more than just a formality; it was a communal witness.  As the state moves to an understanding that marriage is merely a secular benefit open to everyone, it shouldn’t be surprised when it is treated as such.  Increasingly, more people will apply just because of the financial benefit it offers, and dissolve it when it no longer is useful to them.  I’m not sure how the State Department can now justify the intense interviews it gives for people applying for marriage visas if the state has surrendered the right to restrict marriage.  Nevertheless, it has become increasingly difficult for me not to see how a secular state-sanctioned marriage is nothing more than just a state benefit that should be exercised only if it truly benefits the religiously married couple.

Whether a church decides to sign a marriage license or encourages a couple to get a marriage license, it should at least have a serious discussion (if it hasn’t already) about how it will define marriage and acknowledge unions within its congregation, instead of letting the state do that for them.  Yes, it’s going to be an uncomfortable conversation.  While we can certainly be welcoming to all, there comes a time when church leadership must also advise against sinful behavior.  For me, the easiest most prudent way to begin that conversation is to say, “The state and the church are declaring two very different ideas when they pronounce a marriage.  I am happy to participate in God’s understanding for marriage.  As for the state’s, I’ll have to leave their definition and understanding up to them.”

While it may result in less unchurched people asking for marriages, it frees the pastor and the church from the awkward obligation to perform a marriage solely for legal purposes.  It allows me to begin the conversation with, “What’s your purpose for wanting me to perform the marriage?”  If I’m only performing a Christian rite, then those who only want a state-issued marriage license will not bother asking me.  And because I recognize that I’m no longer performing a state function, I have totally transformed my stance on whom I will and will not marry.  It also allows people that normally couldn’t perform weddings (because they didn’t meet state clergy requirements) to be able to do so.  In other words, it further dissolves the unbiblical distinction of clergy and laity – a distinction that should have no place in a New Testament church (a discussion for another day).

For years, the LGBT community has had same-sex union ceremonies with no state component.  They have led the way in teaching that a state blessing is not necessarily required for a couple to be united and receive a blessing from the community.  Perhaps it’s time we take our cue from them.  The fact that certain states are considering ceasing to offer marriage licenses altogether confirms that when it comes to marriage, the church would do well to divorce itself from its participation with the state.

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